A state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota took a decisive step Wednesday toward ending up on the 2012 ballot.

After more than three hours of often-emotional debate, the Senate approved the proposed amendment by a vote of 38-27 that fell almost completely along party lines.

The issue, debated for years in the Legislature, had never before been voted on by the full Senate. Sen Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, sponsor of the bill to put the measure to voters, said it "has eluded the Minnesota Senate for seven years."

The House has not yet taken up the bill but is expected to pass it, as well.

Although DFL Gov. Mark Dayton opposes the measure, which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, he has no voice in the decision because constitutional amendments do not require a governor's signature to be placed on the ballot. Nor could he veto the amendment if voters approve it.

State law already defines marriage as the amendment does, but supporters say a constitutional measure is needed to prevent judges, or a future Legislature, from overturning the law.

Although DFL majorities blocked the amendment for years, now that Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, passage seems nearly assured.

Day of debate

Opponents dominated the debate Wednesday, raising objections that covered a range of topics, including religion, discrimination and potential economic fallout.

Dozens of activists on both sides of the issue filled the Senate gallery, and opponents of the amendment conceded that they had little hope of preventing its passage.

"I'm not hopeful at this point," said St. Paul resident Paul Fleege, who hung a banner outside the chamber that said, "To Be Lesbian or Gay is a Gift from God."

"After last November, I knew right away it was going to pass."

Limmer said the amendment is needed so as not to allow "a small group of politicians or judges to define marriage," and he cited a recent poll sponsored by the Minnesota Family Council that showed three-fourths of the state's residents want the opportunity to vote on the issue. Limmer asked, "When I think about it, why shouldn't they?"

All Senate Republicans voted for the proposal; only one DFLer, Sen. Leroy Stumpf of Plummer, joined them.

Noting that 31 other states have similar bans in their constitution and 14 others have banned it by statute, Limmer said: "Do we dare say those [states] are wrong? It's time on this critical issue to let the people vote."

Several recent national polls have found that opposition to same-sex marriage has been shrinking to a point where Americans are split on the issue.

"This new [Senate] majority is very, very wrong," said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. "This new majority is out of step with the people of Minnesota and the people of this country. People have moved on."

DFLers argued that there's no indication the state's courts are poised to overturn the current law.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who is openly gay, showed a picture of himself and his partner, Richard, and emotionally asked, "What's so different about us? What's such a problem? The truth about our relationship is we work hard every single day at our jobs. We've been there for each other. We made a lifetime commitment based in love."

He added, "What family is this helping? Not a single family in Minnesota is helped by this effort."

After the vote, Dibble said his "heart is broken for myself and many friends. It's a sad and shameful day."

If the amendment is on the ballot, Dibble predicted that "an ugly, angry, divisive campaign" will unfold in Minnesota, with millions of dollars being spent by both sides.

DFLers said some supporters of the amendment are religiously motivated. "You don't have to agree with my religious beliefs ... but government's job is not to favor some beliefs over others," said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

One supporter, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said prohibiting gay marriage in the state Constitution "does not prevent gays and lesbians to live as they choose in our state as they do now," citing legal contracts already available to gay and lesbian couples.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, called the amendment "a wedge issue" designed to boost the turnout of conservative and religious voters next year. "It's the latest installment in the culture wars," he said.

Limmer said that, based on the number of states that have similar amendments, "I don't think that argument holds water."

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973